For August Cole, understanding the future of war is an art — and it requires the help of artists.
Cole, who serves as a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and director of its Art of Future Warfare project, taught a Special Studies master class titled “Taming the Ocean: Does China Need a Pacific War to Fulfill its National Destiny?” on Aug. 7 to discuss the application of fiction to the exploration of a possible World War III with China. This topic is also the subject of Cole’s first novel, Ghost Fleet, which was published in June and co-written with Peter W. Singer.
“Fiction is able to explore the blind spots [of our technology and government intelligence],” Cole said. “Until we show what the potential may be, it can be hard to understand [the possibilities].”
Cole is a former defense-industry reporter for The Wall Street Journal and a writer-in-residence for Avescent. Cole ultimately left journalism in order to pursue fiction writing.
“Arguably, it was not the wisest thing to do, professionally, but it was something I felt like I needed to do,” he said.
The Art of Future Warfare project is an initiative that seeks to create a platform in which artists, writers and designers can create a vision of what future warfare might look like. They then convey those artistic visions with defense experts.
This creative interaction with military possibilities “allows us to battle-test [ideas] without having to send anybody to war,” Cole said.
In this spirit, Cole and Singer did extensive research while writing Ghost Fleet, including interviews with military personnel in order to ensure the greatest degree of accuracy possible in the future the book depicts.
The work is “a mashup of nonfiction and thriller,” as all technologies and trends described are real and documented in the book’s 400 endnotes, Cole said.
“I felt like fiction would be a great way to explore things I couldn’t get my hands around as a reporter,” he said. “There’s a lot that we [as a society] are distracted by, but creative works like film and books can bring things to light.”
Ghost Fleet is also an example of the bridge between creative enterprises and military officials that the Art of Future Warfare project hopes to encourage. Before the book’s publication, copies were circulated within the Navy and landed on the desk of the Navy secretary, Cole said.
Since then, Cole and Singer have traveled to Capitol Hill and met with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the topics covered in the book.
“It’s been really nice to see,” Cole said.
Though the average reader does not have influence on future military endeavors, Cole told his class there were two main messages he hoped they would take from Ghost Fleet.
“You need to look in your blind spots and test assumptions,” he said. “Narrative and fiction can help us to understand the real world things [we see there].”